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NYC: Medical examiner nears using high-tech DNA system to ID mass-casualty victims

Known as "Rapid DNA," the portable device can match genetic material of relatives with the deceased and develop profiles in about 120 minutes, officials say. 

The high-speed Rapid DNA device was used to

The high-speed Rapid DNA device was used to identify victims of the Paradise fire in California and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Photo Credit: ANDE

The New York City medical examiner is on the verge of using a new speedy DNA technology in mass casualty situations, a system that can identify victims in about two hours, instead of weeks and months under current procedures, officials have said.

Known as “Rapid DNA,” the portable device made by ANDE, a Colorado-based technology company. It was used in 2018 to identify victims of the Paradise fire in California and in 2017 after Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, officials said.

The system analyzes DNA from saliva of relatives of the deceased and develops genetic profiles in about 120 minutes, officials said. Those profiles are then compared with those of the victims. 

The city got a preliminary nod to use Rapid DNA after the Office of Chief Medical Examiner earlier this month gave a convincing demonstration of the device, known as the ANDE 6C, to state officials. The 117-pound machine, which can fit in the back of an SUV, performed in tests with a high degree of accuracy comparable to traditional testing methods.

“They were pristine profiles," said Andrew Schweighardt, a forensic biologist with the medical examiner's office, when he presented the test results to the state DNA Subcommittee, part of the state Commission on Forensic Science.

So impressed were members of the subcommittee, they voted unanimously to make a binding recommendation to the full commission when it meets next month that Rapid DNA be cleared for use by the city medical examiner. The commission can either accept or reject the recommendation for further study, a spokeswoman said.

During the presentation, Mark Desire, the medical examiner's assistant director for forensic biology, said the new system can take DNA samples from family members and generate profiles in about two hours at any special family center set up after a mass casualty situation. 

“We want to provide information to families so they are not wandering from hospital to hospital," Desire told the subcommittee. Experts note that even in small disasters it can take months or years to identify victims' remains.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on the World Trade Center, the medical examiner's office has been consulted in 10 mass casualty cases, Desire said.

In an OCME test, the portable device analyzed saliva samples from a number of volunteers. The samples were placed into a disposable tray that can handle five at a time, officials noted. Those samples are then compared with DNA profiles of disaster victims.

According to Annette Mattern, chief spokeswoman for ANDE, the portable machine was used in the analysis of about 50 family samples in connection with the fire that wiped out Paradise, California in late 2018. About 85 percent of the profiles were matched to those of fire victims, she said.

In February, the state Commission on Forensic Science notified all public laboratories that they must appear before the commission to reveal their intended use and validation studies. Officials with the NYPD said the department isn’t using Rapid DNA for crime scenes.

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